The Monk of Mokha

Within the space of 8 months in 1991/2, Dave Eggers lost both his mother and father to cancer. At the time, they were in their 50s, he was 21, and he had a younger brother, Christopher, who was 8. His two older siblings were unable to care for Toph, so Eggers dropped out of his journalism studies at University of Illinois, moved to the Bay Area, and, struggling with sudden parenthood, began taking care of Toph. Eight years later, he produced his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, an account of that struggle, which became an NYTimes number one bestseller and received multiple best book of the year awards.

That book was somewhere between a non-fiction novel and a memoir of pain and growth. It included a number of stylistic pirouettes, and was deeply engaging with its post-adolescent manic energy, whipsaw perspective shifts, and uproarious tangents.

While he has written several novels, it’s become clear over the subsequent two decades that Eggers is still a journalist at heart, with Dickensian story telling skill, and a poet’s mastery of language. In 2006, he wrote what he termed a novel, What Is The What: The Autobiography of Valentin Achak Deng. Deng came to Eggers, seeking help to write his story, an odyssey as one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys”, who traveled for years from the war-torn land through refugee camps to America. Deng realised he was not up to the task, and Eggers, after immersing himself in the details, ended up writing the tale. By calling it a “novel”, he felt he was able to imagine conversations, and weave the narrative more tightly than a pure chronological recitation would produce.

In 2009, Zeitoun took a similar tack in the story of a Muslim-American family dealing with the aftermath of Katrina’s devastation to their home and community in New Orleans. Eggers, while doing research and talking with others involved to triangulate the story he was hearing from the title character, retained his journalistic roots. But again, he remained committed to finding a powerful story within the constraints of real life.

After several works of pure fiction showed that making up a story and telling it well don’t have quite the punch of a well-told, nuanced real life drama, he has returned to non-fiction with The Monk of Mokha. Again, Eggers has made the wise (or lucky?) choice of starting with a compelling lead character: Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American. Mokhtar, born in California, at first seems to be sliding through life on charm, wit, and episodic superficial commitment to grand plans and failed dreams. But a chance encounter with an ex-girlfriend leads him into the rabbit-hole of coffee’s history, with its almost forgotten origin in Yemen.

Yemen, a land he is from, but not of. Nonetheless, Mokhtar develops a fervor for bringing coffee from that country into specialty shops in the US. He envisions restoring Yemeni coffee to a place of eminence, despite its reputation as sludge fit solely for the lower classes in Saudia Arabia. He creates for himself an almost impossible goal. He knows nothing about coffee: its cultivation, processing, transport, and retail sale. While he does have relatives well-placed in Yemen, they know nothing about coffee cultivation. The farmers there have converted most of their crops from coffee to the mild narcotic plant, khat. He has absolutely no business experience. He has no background with which to judge the quality of coffee anywhere along the supply chain. The venture capitalists he finds within the Yemeni-American community pull out at the last moment, once the civil war in Yemen heats up.

But all this is mere prelude to the final third of the book, a driving narrative of escape from that war as improbable as it is heroic. Even though we know Mokhtar lived to tell the tale, Eggers keeps the suspense at full throttle through to the end, as he holds out the answer to the key question – “Will Yemeni coffee finally make it to the market?”

Mokhtar is more complex than any imagined, fictional character could be. At once comic, tragic, and heroic, he ends up being someone worth rooting for. And there’s no one better than Eggers at getting us on the side of someone like that.

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